ST. LOUIS – Derek Jeter(notes) never was leaving New York. No matter how badly the New York Yankees insulted him, no matter how much they lowballed him, no matter how steep his decline, Jeter would wear pinstripes for the rest of his career. It had to be that way. It just did.
He didn't pass the picture test.
Now, a warning: This is an entirely subjective exercise. The list will vary from person to person. But some ballplayers would just look wrong pictured in a uniform different than the one they've worn throughout their career. Derek Jeter is a no-brainer. Chipper Jones(notes), too. Ichiro(notes), outside of Seattle? No way. Joe Mauer(notes) needed to sign his extension with Minnesota. And it's not just veterans, either. Troy Tulowitzki(notes) is a Rockie, Tim Lincecum(notes) a Giant, Dustin Pedroia(notes) a Red Sox. Think about Tulo as a Brave and Lincecum as a Tiger and Pedroia as a Dodger. Doesn't work, huh?
Think, too, about Albert Pujols(notes). Go ahead. Run through every uniform in baseball. Or just limit it to the teams with the money or motivation to pursue him. Washington, San Francisco, Texas. No, no, no. Yankees? Lord please no. Red Sox? That might be even worse. Los Angeles? Ha. Toronto? Eh. Chicago? St. Louis might have its own Great Fire.
Baseball players love to say this is a business. It ostensibly protects them from grief over leaving a place they love. It's a huge copout, too. The best businesses do not always chase the top dollar. They work with whom they're comfortable, with whom they can build something sustained and lasting. Money is an object, just not the object.
In less than a week, Pujols is going to hit free agency. Most, if not all, of the teams mentioned above will at least inquire on his asking price. It will surely top $200 million. Based on the market, he deserves to be the second player to crack that plateau (Alex Rodriguez(notes) was first). Who will give it to him is the question. And the even bigger one is whether the St. Louis Cardinals, the team with whom Pujols has starred for a decade, will match or exceed it.
Because more than anyone not named Jeter, Pujols looks right in a Cardinals uniform. The other marquee first baseman this offseason, Prince Fielder(notes), has uniform malleability – a quality perhaps based as much on his choice of agent (Scott Boras) as anything sartorial. The picture test ultimately places Pujols' choice in perspective: If the average fan can see him wearing nothing but a Cardinals uniform – and that is the case – the backlash over him leaving will be infinitely higher. And the big question, thus, is whether Albert Pujols, St. Louis icon, would leave behind everything he has created for what amounts to, at most, 20 percent more money.
This is not insignificant money, of course. Based on conversations with agents and executives in recent weeks, they expect Pujols to sign for between $210 million and $250 million over seven to 10 years. The median guesses skewed toward eight years and $225 million, an average value of about $28.1 million a year, slightly higher than Rodriguez's 10-year, $275 million deal.
A 20 percent premium of $225 million is $45 million. Nobody fathomed a $270 million deal, but this is free agency, and free agency off a new collective-bargaining agreement with billions of dollars in television money primed to pour into the sport. This offseason could get wacky. And if it does, and some team goes Bellevue, Pujols must decide whether that extra money is worth wearing another uniform.
For most of us, the difference between $225 million and $270 million, while significant, is silly. A $225 million contract is ridiculous. A $270 million contract is ridiculous. They are in the same pantheon of ridiculousness. Once a sports contract hits nine figures, it's officially ridiculous, and the prospect of leaving a place of comfort at that juncture does not resonate well.
At the same time, Pujols has not revealed his motivations in free agency. Maybe he would use that extra money to help his foundation. Perhaps he just needs to feel loved and appreciated. Could be that money does trump comfort for him.
The two need not be mutually exclusive, either, and that's the Cardinals' conundrum. They know as well as Pujols how he fits in their uniform, how he defines their franchise, how he means everything to their city. Losing him would devastate the team. Keeping him could as well. The prospect of devoting 25 percent of a team's payroll to one player often ends in disaster. Doing so with a player who will start next season at 32 years old is like playing chicken with a Smart Car against a Hummer.
So, if nothing else, the Cardinals and their fans should cherish Game 6 of the World Series on Thursday and, if it comes to it, Game 7 on Friday. Watching Pujols play baseball is a privilege, like seeing a great artist stroke a brush or a great musician create sounds thought impossible. All the Cardinals fans who had soured of him after his Game 2 clubhouse no-show thought better when he blasted three home runs in Game 3. Whatever Pujols' deficiencies – and there are some – his play outweighs them multifold.
[World Series slideshow: Best photos of Games 1-5]
Two days ago, when asked about the possibility of Pujols leaving, his manager for his whole time in St. Louis, Tony La Russa, turned sentimental. It's a feeling espoused throughout the city, too. Even though it is a possibility, it doesn't feel like one that should exist. Milwaukee gave Fielder a hearty round of applause after his last at-bat at Miller Park because Brewers fans were resigned to him leaving.
If the Texas Rangers do jump out to a big lead and lock up the World Series, and Pujols steps to the plate for what could be his final time, the applause at Busch Stadium will be different. It will roar, the sort of deafening din meant to connote much more than thanks. Tens of thousands of voices will come together with aaaaaahs and yeaaaaahs and wooooos, and those will meld into words they hope he hears.
Please stay, Albert.
You belong here.
Any other uniform just won't look right.
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- Albert Pujols